Informed Midwesterner Reacts Against Mr. Clawson's Column

January 24, 1999

Dear Editorial Staff,

Roger Clawson, in January 24 issue of the "The Billings Gazette," found at engages in a meaningless and fallacious diatribe against a helpless New England strawman.

Now, I am a philosopher by trade, and one of my duties as a philosopher is to reason correctly, to make sure my arguments follow from particular premises, to avoid the marks of fallacy that Aristotle outlined almost 2500 years ago. To be sure, one need not know a single thing about the American bison to see the hopeless task of Mr. Clawson's article. That someone like myself does, who has devoted himself to the research and scholarship of Yellowstone, is particularly more insulting to the issues at hand.

So, let us look at Mr. Clawson's column, and let me show you what I find disturbing to the fabric of sound reasoning.

The article begins with a lament of sorts:

"Explaining something to the dense or disinterested is like fishing with dynamite. It muddies the water and accomplishes little else. "

It is my only hope that those who put much stock in what Clawson says in the rest of his opinion piece are not so dense and disinterested in some basic points of logic.

The column, then, introduces the problem. Mr. Clawson is faced with explaining a complex issue to an ignorant person thousands of miles away. He sets up the situation by noting that he was dealing with an angry New England woman who had a wrong number. After some bantering insults back and forth, the woman stereotypes all Montanans as people who hate wolves. Mr. Clawson responds that he does not hate wolves and explains that the situation is very complex. However, to raise her ire, he announces, "I hate buffalo."

He reports the rest of the conversation:

It worked. Her brain rebooted with a snort and a growl. She returned alert and on the attack. "Of course you do," she said. "You probably eat beef."

"Of course I do," I said, detecting a whiff of vegan in her disdain. "Someone must. You folks on the coasts are laying down on the job. Anyway, I don't really hate buffalo. But I do support the state's massacre of buffalo leaking out of Yellowstone National Park.

She remembered seeing the slaughter on TV. Convinced there could be no good reason for killing innocent animals, she could not recall why the dumb brutes were shot.

"We (I said, assuming the defense for all Montana) killed them because they carry brucellosis."

"And you murdered them because you were afraid they would give this disease to your precious cows"

"Nope. We killed them because Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa and other states won't buy Montana calves for their feedlots if there is a chance of brucellosis infection."

A long pause. Then: "Nebraska is afraid that your cows will give their cows something bad?"

"No. Nebraska is afraid that you might be afraid. "If you knew Nebraska packers butchered diseased stock infected by Yellowstone Park buffalo, you wouldn't eat beef."

"I DON'T EAT BEEF," she screamed.

There you have it, I said. Proof positive of the seriousness of this business.

What we are led to believe by Mr. Clawson's column is a particular argument. It goes something like this:

1. People who might be afraid of diseased cattle have scared Nebraska butchers.

2. Nebraska butchers are afraid that bison might disease cattle.

3. Montana does not want their meat turned down by Nebraska butchers.

4. Montana slaughters bison to appease Nebraska butchers and the people who eat meat who are scared of diseased cattle.

5. People who still oppose this do not eat meat, and perhaps, are vegans (a probable catchword for extremism).

6. Therefore, Mr. Clawson is justified in supporting the slaughter of bison (afterall, he eats meat).

Well, I eat meat and do not support the slaughter of bison. And, I need not know the facts of the situation in the slightest to overthrow this line of reasoning. Mr. Clawson admits that it might be a possible argument against the bison slaughter that someone may be a vegetarian. However, this is taken as a reductio ad absurdum, which translates to a 'reduction to absurdity,' against the position. For, Mr. Clawson assumes that eating meat is okay, and it is only those with a "whiff of vegan" who would oppose it on those grounds. Although, philosophically, it makes his argument weak because the premise he assumes could use more proof, it does not change the argument's necessary validity. That is, simply because he may not have proven that it is reasonable to eat meat, it would still follow, if Clawson's reasoning holds, that one should support the bison slaughter if one believed in eating cattle.

However, the argument still suffers from a horrible flaw. Mr. Clawson argues that the fear of the average consumer justifies the fear of Nebraska justifies the fear of Montana justifies the killing of bison. Now, notice the last in that chain. It is logically supposed that fear entails, hence justifies, killing. I might derive a similar argument that is utterly absurd. Let us consider the mail. We are afraid that mailmen might not give us our mail because they are afraid of dogs. Mailmen are in fact afraid of dogs. The Postal Service is afraid that people will not get their mail because mailmen are afraid of dogs. Therefore, the government orders that we kill all of our dogs. The parallel in each case is that we make a logical jump from fear to the justification of killing, or slaughter, when nothing in fear necessarily entails or justifies death.

There must be unstated premises in Mr. Clawson's argument. If we are not to make the absurd generalization that we are justified in killing (bison) what most people are afraid of in consequence of not killing (diseased cattle), then we need something else. However, Clawson does not give us that something else. The logic is fallacious, no matter what side of the issue you are on. Fear does not entail killing, and fear en masse does not justify it anymore so.

Of course, as I said, I am a knowledgeable person about the bison matter. It is not at all clear that there is a real justification in the fear that brucellosis will be transmitted to cattle, that much less than that, that bulls can possibly transmit the disease, or any of the other things supposed in the conflict between bison and cattle that we are proposed to assume.

Nevertheless, whether we accept Mr. Clawson's assessment of the fear and the reality of that fear, it does not therefore follow that the act of killing follows from the fact of fear. We must not buy wholesale into that logic, or we should expect that Mr. Clawson has an argument for why there is a necessary relationship between the fact of fear over brucellosis and the justification of killing.

There may in fact be alternative explanations. Might one argue that bison might be more important than Montana cattle, if there indeed was a real conflict between the two? Or, perhaps, the aesthetic value of a world with bison, a Yellowstone with a healthy bison population, may be more important than the possible loss of status for Montana cattle? Even if we say that the highest values are human values and claim that those who might say otherwise are extremists, might there be higher human values involved than protecting a cattle status over protecting a free-roaming bison population? And, even if protecting a cattle population from brucellosis is decided to be a highest value, are there not possible solutions short of slaughter?

The point is not to argue any one of the alternative suggestions. I am simply trying to express the fallacious lack of logical reasoning proposed in the argument put forth by Mr. Clawson. Fear does not entail slaughter. That his tactics may prove easy to use in ridicule of an ignorant New Englander, the position of the New Englander is but a strawman, an easy victory in a much more intricate philosophical battle.

Of course, Mr. Clawson may note that I concede to him on the essential point that people have very strong opinions about things they know nothing about. This is indubitable, and I will concede to Mr. Clawson this very point. In Ohio, where I am from, it would be very amazing indeed to find anyone who has even HEARD of the situation in Montana, much less an informed opinion of it. It only goes to show you, however, that the simplistic argument that Mr. Clawson gives us to inform our ignorant Americans is all the more dangerous, all the more pernicious, all the more ridiculous.

With that, let us be careful about what we read. I hope we do not buy into poor logic, however ignorant of the facts some of us may be. For, this is not simply a battle about the facts, it is a battle about values and philosophy, and simple logic. Particular facts do not necessarily entail certain actions, and we should not slip so easily into the sophistry of the argument.